SEOUL (Reuters) - U.S. and South Korean forces can deter and defeat North Korea regardless of whether the reclusive communist state has one or several nuclear weapons, a senior U.S. military officer said in an interview broadcast on Wednesday.
The commander of the U.S. forces in South Korea, General Leon LaPorte, said that the U.S. military believes North Korea has one to two nuclear weapons at a minimum, and is also working to advance its missile programme.
"Whether North Korea has one or several nuclear weapons does not change the balance on the peninsula," LaPorte told South Korea's PBC radio in an interview taped on Tuesday, according to transcript provided by the station.
"The U.S. and the Republic of Korea retain our ability to deter North Korean aggression and, if required, to decisively defeat the North Korean threat if they were to threaten South Korea," he said.
But he said the United States was fully committed to six-country talks aimed at ending the North's nuclear weapons programmes and sought a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
U.S. officials have repeatedly said Washington has no intention of attacking the North.
LaPorte also said the U.S. military believes the North has a substantial missile programme, which includes long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles that could hit mainland United States if the North succeeded in increasing their power.
U.S. officials dealing with North Korea's growing nuclear threat will hold an exercise next month at Washington's National Defence University on how to react and anticipate consequences if a crisis develops, U.S. government sources said.
The university, a leading U.S. military education institution under the direction of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has scheduled a "crisis simulation" exercise for July 18.
North Korea said in February it possessed nuclear weapons and was boycotting the six-party talks, but recently has shown signs that it may return to the table.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il told a visiting South Korean official recently that his country was prepared to return to negotiations if certain conditions were met, such as having Washington treat Pyongyang as a genuine partner.
The six-party talks involve the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia.